By  on February 8, 1994

NEW YORK -- Despite the continued late buying habits of many retailers, it's shaping up to be a strong spring-summer for dresses and suits, with bookings running as much as 30 percent ahead of last year's.

Retailers and manufacturers agree that short lengths will continue to drive business, with textured fabrics and prints playing an important role. Some also say longer looks are inching back into the picture, mostly in flowing, ankle-grazing dresses and skirts.

Makers say late orders from the stores force them to gamble on stock positions in fabrics and finished goods. Retailers defend their closer-to-the-season buys by noting they are simply following the consumer, who is shopping with a "wear-now" mentality, resulting in stores bringing goods in later.

For this season, however, the complaints appear to be outweighed by the good pace of business, and those retailers with spring merchandise already on the floor have gotten good reaction.

Teresa Tymoski, vice president and general merchandise manager for Henri Bendel, said dress and suit business has gotten off to a strong early start, despite some tough weather conditions.

"We're planning our spring dress business very aggressively based on the excellent early response," Tymoski said. "We've also seen some excellent suit selling out of the box. The indications are there for a strong season."

In dresses, slip and apron silhouettes in short and long lengths have sold well, particularly private-label slip dresses, apron dresses from Leon Max and body-conscious looks from ABS. Tymoski said Bendel's will feature a "major slip dress statement" in its windows this week.

Ensemble looks using jacket and dress combinations are expected to be important as well.

In suits, soft silhouettes from Tahari have done well. Customers are responding to colors such as soft blue and to fingertip-length jackets, Tymoski added.

Ellin Saltzman, fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, said, "The little black dress continues to be strong."

Saltzman said short lengths -- ranging from two to eight inches above the knee -- are the predominant look, except for some long and full summer dresses.

Important silhouettes include fit-and-flare, tube, apron and slip dresses, Saltzman said, in black, navy, brights, floral prints and gingham checks. Fabrics such as silk, lace, rayon, cotton, linen and wrinkle viscose have emerged as key elements, she noted.

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